IF you’ve been out in Burgos, you’ve seen the signs and perhaps, if you’ve entered Ringside Bar, you’ve been asked the question: “do you want to oil the midgets?” Ringside Bar features “lady boxing, midget boxing, midget oil wrestling, and midget dancing” in addition to regular, plain lady dancing. According to Kristina Wong, an activist and performance artist from LA, Manila is “known within the tourist circle for Midget Boxing and Midget Basketball because of the book Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew.” Yet to even those travelers who haven’t read the Fulbright scholar’s book on basketball mania and culture in the Philippines, “midget entertainment” often becomes associated with nightlife in Manila.
A friend of mine from England was visiting Manila for a work conference; he partners with NGOs here to help journalists and other investigative entities employ large-scale data in their work. Discussing political affairs and the persecution of journalists in this country by day, the sudden political incongruity surprised him when, by night, his local partners encouraged their visiting guests to drink with them at Ringside Bar. He asked me about this later, completely unable to wrap his mind around this feature of our nightlife. Meanwhile, I couldn’t believe that of all the things our nightlife boasts, this was one of our suggestions to foreign visitors, that this is part of our city’s landmark evening offerings. Similarly, Hobbit House in Ermita has become so popular that it opened a second location in Boracay.
Perhaps the connection here is tourism. Hobbit House was reportedly founded in 1973 by a former Peace Corps volunteer and college professor Jim Turner, who, according to the establishment’s website “was so inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books that he founded a bar called Hobbit House entirely staffed by ‘little people.’” Politically incorrect already, sure, but if we take as given foreign Philippine tourism’s premise of catering to the desire for the exotic, this is just another sad face of an already sad industry. How different are these establishments from the other girly bars serving up as spectacle the Filipina body to the foreign gaze?
But the gaze here, as in the regular girly bars, is of course not just foreign, and even still I am equally uncomfortable with any situation in which a person’s best option to make a living is to display her body as spectacle detached from her person, if she perceives it as degrading. That is the caveat here. It is not a straight story of victimization just because a woman becomes a prostitute or a little person boxes in a sideshow—these can be stories of agency, of employing a reprehensible system to your own monetary benefit, of taking your life into your own hands. In a society where little people may have few opportunities to earn a living due to discrimination, and where women plagued with poverty and lack of education and connections often have to find some way to feed several children, establishments like these can be a saving grace.
So this is not about the choices of those on stage—it’s about the audience, and this is where I think there is a distinction between the “midgets dancing” and the women dancing. One bodily display works through attraction and the other some mix of repulsion and curiosity about things irregular or anomalous. The desire for spectacle, the existence of the carnival and the circus—none of these are new or particular to the Philippines. But, on an individual level, what is going through your mind when you sit down to drink beer and watch little people fight? What exactly are you enjoying, and why? Why is it socially acceptable here? Nobody seems to thinks twice about it. I’ve been asked so many times by people I know well, if I want to go to Ringside, and I just want wonder why.
I would never question the performers. I understand the underlying premise of the carnival. Moreover, I too take pride in the fact that we have a place such as Burgos, which I love, because it is a place that exists in contradistinction to sanitized, planned loci of entertainment, such as its polar opposite, Burgos Circle in the Fort, which I seek to avoid. I get all that and I concede all that. But even still, and even with all the caveats of agency and my support for marginalized groups making their own living, I simply can’t sit back and enjoy it. I hope that I never see a marginalized person objectifying him/herself in order to play to a crowd’s sense of repulsion and curiosity, look into his eyes, and find it fun. How does anyone?
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.